25 September 2021

Key Issues Highlighted for Conservative Evangelicals by the COVID Crisis – Part Two

At their meeting last week the Affinity Advisory Council had a discussion about the ways in which the Covid pandemic has affected our churches over the past eighteen months, and how we are going to address the ongoing challenges and opportunities into the future.

By way of introduction to our conversation, and to set the scene, John Stevens, National Director of FIEC, was asked to present a paper. We are publishing it here in three parts to share it with a wider audience.

In this second part, John considers the relationship between faith and risk:

Faith and risk

A second issue that Graham asked me to comment on was that of faith and risk. The accusation of many in the pandemic was that wider culture has lost a sense of perspective and become unduly risk-averse and that Christians have been gripped by this same ‘health and safety’ culture. Those who supported the COVID rules and regulations were sometimes characterised as lacking faith or cowardice.  

Whilst it is certainly true that Christians are called to exercise bold faith and to trust God for the future, it is less clear what faith and risk ought to mean in a novel pandemic situation. Those who were critical of COVID policy and Christian compliance with it tended to regard this as indicative of a lack of trust in promises of eternal life or of overestimating the personal risk of COVID. 

The problem is that the Bible does not promise deliverance or protection from a disease such a COVID for believers. There has been an increasing number of tragic cases of those who have said they will be protected by faith and have not, for example, accepted vaccinations but who have subsequently died of COVID. 

At a more personal level, there is a difference between a relatively small risk in the abstract and the impact of that risk on the individual. It may well be the case that there is a very small risk of death from COVID (although it is much higher in some categories, for example, amongst the elderly), but this does not mean that it is a risk that a specific individual will be willing to take, especially if there are steps that will mitigate the risk. It is not unnatural for people to value their lives and to want to see, for example, their children and grandchildren grow up. Many people know others who have died from COVID, bringing the reality closer to home. 

It also needs to be remembered that COVID was a new disease and that the degree of risk was unknown. Government projections were understandably frightening. It was entirely natural for people to act cautiously until better information was available. 

Once again, there was an interplay between theology and opinions about the scientific evidence and government policy. Those who were sceptical about the risk of COVID, and the efficacy of lockdown measures, were also most strident in accusing people of fear or Christians of a lack of faith. Their attitude to death could seem somewhat callous and arbitrary, dealing in statistics without concern for the human individuals or displaying a lesser concern for the elderly. In essence, the argument was that we have to accept the death of some, potentially many, to preserve freedom for the majority. Again, the fear was that restrictions would potentially become a ‘new normal’ rather than a temporary expedient. 

It is somewhat ironic and illustrative of the difficulty of gaining accurate information on risk that those who opposed the lockdown tended to argue that the statistics on death from COVID had been exaggerated whilst simultaneously claiming that the statistics on vaccine deaths from side-effects had been minimised. How were leaders, let alone ordinary Christians, called to make judgements in a swirl of information and disinformation? 

Whilst the Bible calls Christians to have faith and trust God both for daily provision and for ultimate salvation, this does not mean that they are to live foolishly, and they will have to make personal judgements of risk and safety. There is no doubt that we are more safety conscious and risk-averse culture – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It has resulted in greatly increased life expectancies over previous generations. We do manage risk, but we naturally accept risks when they are known and quantified so we can make a wisdom judgement whether they are worth taking. COVID was a new and unknown risk, and therefore a more risk-averse approach was inevitable. 

Christians are called to take risks and live by faith in following and honouring Christ. They are to speak the gospel even when this will lead to opposition and persecution and to accept death rather than deny him. They are to go where he calls them, even if it is dangerous, as missionaries have done down the centuries. However, this is not to be set against exercising wisdom in everyday life. Common grace means availing ourselves of the blessings of creation and to seek to avoid the consequences of a fallen creation. The law makes provision for medical quarantine and prescribes building regulations to make roofs safe. We have a duty to protect our neighbours. It is not a lack of faith to use medicine or to ensure that our cars have been properly services and MOTed! We may well lack sufficient faith as an evangelical constituency, but perhaps that is more evident in our weakness in evangelism and desire to live with levels of material comfort far beyond necessity than in the reaction to the COVID pandemic. 

It was too easy for the narrative about faith to be seized by those who wanted to reject COVID restrictions. Faith in the context of a novel pandemic with unknown consequences might well mean trusting the decisions of public health experts and government authorities and accepting medical treatments that are developed. There should not be an artificial tension created between trusting God and trusting in the means of common grace. There was relatively little reflection on what it might mean to trust in the sovereign purposes of God and his providential ordering of life in the context of the pandemic, especially in regard to government restrictions. Perhaps faith in such circumstances might mean trusting that God would continue to meet the need of his people and accomplish his saving purposes even though we were not permitted to conduct business as usual. Perhaps online ministry was a gracious providential provision in the circumstances, not a cowardly cop-out. In revival, it is often remarked that God blesses many groups despite their differences over secondary matters. There seems little evidence to suggests that God has only blessed those who refused to submit to government restrictions through this time and much to suggest the opposite.  

The pandemic is a warning of the danger of judging others for the steps they take to protect themselves. People will have different levels of risk aversion, and that may not be indicative of their faith or lack of it. We need to be cautious before we seek to impose our attitude to risk on others unless this is demanded in the specific context by Scripture. 

John Stevens


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